As fiddler Jenee Fleenor pulled into the parking lot at Nashville's Blackbird Studios on Aug. 28, text messages pinged one after another on her cellphone.
It was Fleenor's first time to make the final ballot for the Country Music Association's musician of the year, and as the congratulatory notes poured in, she was understandably overtaken with emotion.
"I just broke down in tears," she recalls.
Fleenor was, by her own estimation, an underdog. For starters, the musician category is hard to break into — from 2011 to 2018, the final slots were annually stocked with five players from a small pool of the same seven musicians. Plus, a number of instruments — such as bass, drums or piano — were routinely ignored on the ballot.
"The last time a fiddle player has been in the mix [was] 2003," recalls Fleenor. "No one has talked about that."
And with good reason. The biggest factor in her dark-horse run was her gender: In the previous 53 years of the CMA Awards, no woman had ever been a finalist. Put another way, CMA voters tabbed men for 265 slots through the years before finally giving a female a shot at musician or, as it was originally known, instrumentalist of the year.
"This is a benchmark nomination for women," says Middle Tennessee State University Recording Industry Management chair Beverly Keel, who co-founded Change the Conversation to call attention to women's underrepresentation in the Nashville music business. "It's a big deal."
Much has been made of the paucity of female voices in radio and streaming playlists, though the lack of women among the studio ranks is perhaps even more jarring. Fleenor's fiddle kicks off Jon Pardi's current single, "Heartache Medication," and it's woven into his previous hits, too. It's also present on Cody Johnson's "On My Way to You" and on "I Lived It" by Blake Shelton, who employs her in his road band. Fleenor's gender has neither hurt her nor helped her in those gigs, which centered on her ability to deliver.
"Jenee is so talented," says Pardi. "She has a range of what she can do on a fiddle, and it keeps it really fresh. She plays a lot with harmonics. She'll go real high and then make it kind of spooky. She puts fiddle in a different place than a regular country fiddle would. That's what I like about her; she's really progressive."
But there aren't many women in the running for studio work. Only 15 to 20% of the membership in the American Federation of Musicians Local 257 is female, according to AFM local executive officer Dave Pomeroy, and that number is actually an increase from previous eras. While there were female artists, background vocalists and string players among earlier generations, only a handful of women — particularly guitarist Velma Williams Smith and pianist Beegie Adair — worked as core studio bandmembers prior to 1980.
"There was a culture there where it was just a male-dominated subgroup of the industry," says Pomeroy. "At the same time, the singing groups would come in and the string players would come in. It was a cultural thing that took a lot longer to get anything remotely approaching parity."
That, in turn, created a lack of female role models. Thus, Fleenor's initial inspiration as a child in Arkansas came mostly from men, especially Mark O'Connor's 1991 album New Nashville Cats.
There were a few female examples, particularly two vocalists who made instrumental work part of their brand: fiddler Alison Krauss and multi-instrumentalist Barbara Mandrell. Other past and current female studio players have included drummer Dina Johnson, bassist Alison Prestwood, keyboardist Catherine Styron, fiddlers Andrea Zonn and Deanie Richardson and multi-instrumentalist Wanda Vick, who gained a certain level of recognition for her part in the all-female group Wild Rose and on TNN's Prime Time Country.
"I always looked up to her because she was on TV and played so many instruments, and she always looked like she had a great time," says Fleenor. "I remember my mom saying, ‘Watch that girl right there. She's always smiling.' She was an amazing musician, so that always stuck out in my head."
Fleenor's obsession with becoming a studio musician started early, and she developed so quickly that when she moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University, she got a job with bluegrass band Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time just weeks after her arrival. Working with an established songwriter (Cordle penned "Highway 40 Blues" and "Murder on Music Row"), Fleenor was encouraged to sublimate her playing to the song and its storyline.
"When I listened to the radio, I always listened to the guitar parts and the steel guitar, fiddle," she says of her initial music habits. The job with Cordle "made me start listening to the lyrics and how to play, what to play and what not to play, really. In commercial music, it's sometimes more about when not to play. We're trying to elevate the song. That was one of the biggest lessons I could learn."
Fleenor subsequently toured with Terri Clark, Martina McBride and Shelton, and while the culture was predominantly male, she had little trouble fitting in. Given the tight quarters and constant interaction on long trips, that adaptability is key for any musician, regardless of gender.
"Being on the road, you've got to have thick skin," she says. "I'm kind of known for my one-liners and being kind of quick. It definitely is a part of it. In the studio atmosphere and being on the road, you kind of just got to be one of the guys."
The guys themselves seem to be pulling for Fleenor and other women. Her CMA nomination comes as musician of the year voting was restricted for the first time to members who work directly in the studio business. Thus, the mostly male contingent is clearly a fan of her work.
Producer-guitarist Dann Huff, who has won musician of the year three times and been nominated 19 times, is hopeful that more women will make their way into the studio business.
"Our industry in Nashville, from a managerial standpoint, is going decisively female," he says, "and they are all, in my book, great. So maybe it's just a matter of time. I grew up wanting to be a studio musician, but I don't remember any women my age that were growing up playing guitars."
Today's young women may see Fleenor's CMA nomination, her work in Shelton's band or her mentions in album liner notes and recognize that session work is attainable in Nashville.
"I hope that this is an inspiration to some young girls out there," she says. "If they want to be in the studio world, come on. Now's the time."